MONTERREY, Mexico – Just as Pope Francis is set to land in Mexico and denounce the violence taking place in the country, a prison brawl in the northern city of Monterrey has left 49 people dead and several more injured.


In the biggest prison riot that Mexico has ever seen, the unrest began shortly after midnight in the B and C sections of the Centro Preventivo de Reinserción Social Topo Chico, a prison in the northewestern part of the city of Monterrey, Nuevo León.

Antonio Argüello, the head of the department for Social Communication of the Secretary of Public Safety, said that the riot lasted approximately 90 minutes and was quelled at around 1:30 in the morning by members of the Civil Forces (police) with help from military members, but he did not explain as to how this happened or if the intervention of the security forces led to more deaths.

In the first reports that are surely to change over the coming days and weeks as more details are gathered, the main theory for the cause of the riot was the killing of a gang boss who was thwarted in his attempt to escape by rival gang members. The violence then began in the blowback to the killing.

The brawl began between members of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, two major narcotrafficking cartels that split power and control in the overcrowded prison of some 3,900 inmates that was built to hold 2,500.

Jorge Hernández Cantú, a high-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel imprisoned for a multitude of murders and kidnappings, allegedly attempted to escape from the prison through the area where conjugal visits are held. To aid in his escape, a small fire was lit in the area in order to distract prison guards while he fled.

Simultaneously, gang members loyal to Juan Pedro Saldívar Farías, a top leader in Los Zetas (which splintered off from the Gulf Cartel in 2010) who was recently transferred to the prison, sought to stop the escape of Hernández Cantú. Both of the gang leaders were said to have survived the riot and are still inside the prison.

The brawl escalated and, according to Argüello, the food storage rooms were set on fire as inmates attacked each other in close combat; only shanks (makeshift knives) and kitchen knives stolen from the cafeteria area were used as the initial report said there were no traces of gunfire.

By the end of the riot, 49 people were dead and 12 were injured, and all of the victims were prisoners.

Shortly after the news broke, Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez Calderón, the Governor of the State of Nuevo León, called the event a “tragedy” that was the result of “the very difficult conditions found in the nation’s penitentiary centers.”

Given the size of the prison, Rodríguez Calderón said that as of late Thursday night, there were “some small sections of the complex” which were still “under the control of the criminals.” He insisted that action was being taken slowly in those areas “so that there are not any more victims.”

The Governor, who surprisingly rose to the position last year as an Independent (a first in any Mexican state), flew over the prison in a police helicopter and lamented that he saw “an old prison that is complex in many ways.”

“There is a mix of inmates in this prison, a mix that should not exist at all. Prisoners convicted of milder, non-violent crimes are placed together with prisoners convicted of murder and other heinous crimes, and that includes many prisoners that are members of organized crime groups. The Mexican penitentiary system is overburdened and what happened here is just one example of that,” Rodríguez Calderón said.

He informed reporters on the scene that 40 of the 49 men killed have been identified; five of the remaining corpses were heavily charred and their identities are more difficult to ascertain while no reason was given as to why the other four have not yet been identified, but it likely has to do with a lack of a comprehensive count and identification of all the prisoners in the overcrowded facility.

Rodríguez Calderón said that the remains of 17 prisoners have been returned to their families, but that has taken place after several highly tense hours at the prison gates as hundreds of relatives and friends of the inmates blocked traffic on nearby streets and gathered to hear information about their loved ones inside.

When answers were delayed, many of those that gathered began to shake the gates and threw various objects at the line of riot police on the other side before the situation calmed. By late Thursday night, two pages that listed the names of the identified victims were posted on several points of the gates that surround the complex.

Rodríguez Calderón was elected mostly due to his very tough stance on organized crime, something that has plagued the wealthy State of Nuevo León disproportionately in the last decade. He was threatened repeatedly and several attempts were made on his life, one of which resulted in the death of a bodyguard and two city police officials, when he served as Mayor of García, a city of 150,000 that forms part of the Monterrey metropolitan area.

Given his background and how he rose to prominence, all eyes are now upon him to see what actions, if any, will be taken in the wake of even more violence. Meanwhile, on a nationwide level, Mexicans will surely lose even more faith in a prison and security system that has been embarrassed in recent years with other deadly riots and high-profile escapes.

As in much of Latin America, courts are in Mexico are overburdened and backlogged. Most prisons are heavily overcrowded (with many inmates going months before actually being charged) and security is understaffed and underpaid, which means that corruption has become more commonplace and deadly riots and gang wars have occurred as authorities continue to lose control inside the penitentiaries.

The number of incidents skyrocketed when Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) took office for a six-year term in 2006 as he took a hardline stance against drug traffickers and cartels.

He ordered state police and military troops to flood Mexican towns and cities as security spending soared, and with the fallout from the violence and power vacuum, the cartels began warring with each other for territory and influence, including inside prisons. Well over 80,000 people nationwide have lost their lives in cartel-related violence while 20,000 remain missing since 2006.

Calderón’s tenure ushered in a string of deadly prison riots: Tijuana, Baja California, 2008 (21 dead), Reynosa, Tamaulipas, 2008 (21 dead), Gómez Palacio, Durango, 2009 (19 dead), Gómez Palacio, Durango, 2010 (23 dead), Mazatlán, Sinaloa, 2010 (29 dead), Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 2010 (14 dead), Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, 2011 (17 dead), Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 2011 (20 dead), Altamira, Tamaulipas, 2012 (31 dead), Apodaca, Nuevo León, 2012 (44 dead), and now Monterrey with 49 deaths, to name a few.